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Why blackface (and brownface) offend

By Marion Gray - posted Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Last week, Polynesian activists accused Disney of promoting “brownface” after it advertised a full body children’s costume depicting the tattooed Pacific demi-god Maui. Weeks earlier, a Perth mother who painted her son’s skin black so he could dress for a school parade as his “idol”, AFL footballer Nic Naitanui, was widely criticised for promoting “blackface”.

Such events occur with disturbing regularity in Australia. Earlier this year, for instance, Australian Opals basketball team member Alice Kunek apologised after posting a photo of herself on Instagram in blackface. The fact that they do highlights an ongoing lack of understanding of what blackface symbolises and why people find it offensive.


To help explain why blackface is more than a simple case of harmless parody or even “honouring your hero,” it is important to understand its historical beginnings.

Early history

In medieval Europe, blackface was often used for entertainment. For example, in France and Italy, black masked figures would act out antisocial behaviour such as crudeness, violence or magic.

In 19th century America, white performers would put dark paint on their faces and perform ridiculous stereotypes about African Americans in Minstrel shows. As Norm Sheehan has written, blackface began as a popular movement that ridiculed and lampooned African Americans leading up to the American Civil War. It continued until the 1970s.

In Melbourne, in the 1880s, writes historian Melissa Bellanta, the Apollo Hall was a blackface minstrel venue. Audiences cheered on white actors with their faces painted with burnt cork and more unusually, a group of African American performers known as the Georgia Minstrels also performed blackface caricatures.

Bellanta highlights that “blackness” was historically used to symbolise social groups, beliefs and behaviours that were despised by society at the time.


More than just skin-deep

Blackface has frequently been used to perpetuate demeaning stereotypes of people of colour and symbolises how people who are not white have been represented as “the other”. It is widely seen as a form racism.

At its heart, “blackface” is about power. Specifically, using one’s power to take something important from someone else and use it for ridicule or entertainment. More recently, blackface has been used to target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. In one notorious incident, The Footy Show’s Sam Newman blackened his face to portray AFL star Nicky Winmar. At the time, Winmar was in the spotlight for speaking out against racism in Aussie rules, famously pointing to his skin on the field and declaring: “‘I’m black - and I’m proud to be black!

Newman’s blackface ridicule of Winmar undermined his important status as an anti-racism activist. Even if this was unintentional, it showed the potentially serious implications of what some regard as “just harmless fun”.

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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About the Author

Marion Gray is Professor, Occupational Therapy, University of the Sunshine Coas.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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